Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where's Obama the populist? (Updated)

UPDATE: "Dem leaders unite on health care strategy" (WaPo).

Howie P.S.: Memo to House---Pass the Senate Bill.

Rahm "Draws Fire From Left as Obama Falters" (Wall Street Journal), with video (04:17):
President Barack Obama's liberal backers have a long list of grievances. The Guantanamo Bay prison is still open. Health care hasn't been transformed. And Wall Street banks are still paying huge bonuses.
But they are directing their anger less at Mr. Obama than at the man who works down the hall from him. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, they say, is the prime obstacle to the changes they thought Mr. Obama's election would bring.

The friction was laid bare in August when Mr. Emanuel showed up at a weekly strategy session featuring liberal groups and White House aides. Some attendees said they were planning to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who were balking at Mr. Obama's health-care overhaul.

"F—ing retarded," Mr. Emanuel scolded the group, according to several participants. He warned them not to alienate lawmakers whose votes would be needed on health care and other top legislative items.

The antipathy reflects deep dissatisfaction on the Democratic left with Mr. Obama's first year in office, and represents a fracturing of the relationship between the president and the political base that mobilized to elect him. A little more than one year ago, Mr. Obama's victory led some to predict an era of Democratic dominance.

The anger on the left shows that Mr. Obama is caught in an internal battle over both the course of his administration and the Democratic Party.

Many in the party, particularly in the wake of the loss last week of a Massachusetts Senate seat, contend that the White House should chart a centrist approach focusing on the economy. They point to polls showing Mr. Obama's approval rating among independent voters has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points since early last year.

The left has gotten some of what it wanted: a ban on torture, an expansion of children's health insurance and an equal-pay law for women. But liberal activists say those and other measures add up to far less than what they expected.

Cenk Uygur, a liberal talk-radio host, calls Mr. Emanuel "Barack Obama's Dick Cheney." One group has run ads against Mr. Emanuel in his hometown of Chicago. And Jane Hamsher, a prominent liberal blogger, is going after Mr. Emanuel's service—10 years ago—on the board of housing-finance giant Freddie Mac.

For the president, Mr. Emanuel is a useful foil, playing a role akin to that of James Baker, who absorbed attacks from unhappy conservatives while chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Emanuel is a centrist cut from the Bill Clinton mold, and his presence is useful as the president tries to cut deals with centrists and conservatives.

The unrest among liberals comes at a perilous political time. Party strategists worry that anger on the left could depress turnout in this year's midterm elections and cost the party congressional seats and state governorships. The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found 55% of Republicans "very interested" in the November elections, compared with 38% of Democrats.

The tension between Mr. Emanuel and liberals has spurred speculation that he might leave the White House, perhaps to run for office again, something he denies.

After the party's Massachusetts loss, criticism of the chief of staff—not only from activists, but from members of Congress—has increased.

In recent days, the White House turned to two other top advisers, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, to discuss on network television how the Massachusetts defeat will affect the president's agenda.

There have been reports of tension between Mr. Emanuel and Ms. Jarrett, who is more ideologically in tune with the liberal base and close with the Obama family, but several people who have worked with the two say they get along fine.

Matthew Rothschild, editor of the Progressive, an antiwar magazine, wrote this month that Mr. Emanuel has "delivered defeat" for Mr. Obama and should be fired.

The president, he wrote, "needs a chief of staff with the wisdom to help point him down a bold, progressive path."

Mr. Emanuel responds with a reference to the party's base: "They like the president, and that's all that counts."

Allies say the chief of staff's strategy is purely realistic, that compromise is required in order to pass legislation. Mr. Emanuel's defenders note that Mr. Obama campaigned as a pragmatist who would value bipartisanship over ideology.

On health care, Mr. Emanuel negotiated with Republicans, pharmaceutical and health-insurance companies.

He also supported Congress dropping liberal ideas that didn't have enough support, in particular the "public option," a provision in which the government would provide health insurance for a large swath of the population. "Rahm's approach, like the president, is not ideological. It's practical," says Bruce Reed, chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a frequent recipient of Mr. Emanuel's phone calls. "The administration's strategy has been to pass health-care reform, not die trying."

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank with close ties to the White House, says he hears the griping about Mr. Emanuel's health-care strategy all the time, even in his own organization. "He's a pretty skilled practitioner of what it takes to get something done on Capitol Hill," he says. "But by moving in that direction, they've paid a big price on the public side, and the bill is unpopular and misunderstood."

"It's better if everyone on the outside is mad at the chief of staff than mad at the president," adds Mr. Podesta, a chief of staff to President Clinton.

While a number of Mr. Emanuel's predecessors, including Messrs. Baker and Podesta, were considered skilled gatekeepers for their bosses, Mr. Emanuel's résumé is somewhat unique: previous White House experience, a short spell as an investment banker, six years in the House as a representative from Illinois, responsibility for setting national campaign strategy for House races and a reputation as a brass-knuckled enforcer.

From his early days in Washington, Mr. Emanuel, who is 50 years old, was more interested in legislative and political victories than ideological warfare, say friends and critics alike. He saw himself as a "New Democrat," identifying with party centrists who were embroiled in an ideological struggle with liberals. As a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, Mr. Emanuel supported the president's tactic of "triangulation," in which Mr. Clinton joined forces with Republicans to push an overhaul of welfare, crime and illegal-immigration policies.

After winning a House seat in 2002, he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and was credited with delivering the majority for his party in the 2006 elections. His strategy was to recruit conservative Democrats to run in Republican-leaning districts.

Within weeks of taking up his White House post, Mr. Emanuel was shuttling between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to resolve disagreements over the $787 billion economic-stimulus package. The legislation angered Republicans, but also irked the left, which regarded the package as too small and complained that Mr. Emanuel was intent on negotiating with the party's more conservative members.

Activists and former campaign staff members watched with dismay as Mr. Emanuel and his team pursued a traditional Washington style of Capitol Hill negotiations and deal making. Activists on the left had hoped the administration would use Mr. Obama's grass-roots campaign network, Organizing for America, and its email list with 13 million names to pressure lawmakers into adopting a more left-leaning agenda, such as pushing for universal health-care coverage.

House aides describe Mr. Emanuel's role in legislative negotiations as more involved than any chief of staff in recent times. During tense House votes on the stimulus package, climate-change legislation and health care, Mr. Emanuel barraged skittish members with phone calls and BlackBerry messages. In one case, he tracked down a Democratic member in the showers at the House gym to make sure he was an aye vote, says one congressional aide.

By the spring, civil libertarians and others were pushing the White House to roll back Bush-era antiterrorism policies on matters ranging from Guantanamo Bay to torture. In meetings of senior advisers, Mr. Emanuel was often the loudest voice questioning the wisdom of such changes, according to a participant in the discussions. His concern wasn't so much the substance of the policy, but the political consequences, this person says.

On May 19, civil-liberties advocates joined Mr. Obama, Mr. Emanuel and other aides for a meeting at the White House. They aired their frustrations with the president's policies. The president listened and asked questions.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who attended the meeting, says he had grown suspicious of Mr. Emanuel, who as a congressman had a largely pro-ACLU voting record. Mr. Romero says he noticed a shift when Mr. Emanuel became "consigliere at the White House," where he focuses "less on the policy outcomes and more on maintaining a Democratic agenda that will keep the party in power."

In the Clinton White House, Mr. Emanuel saw the pharmaceutical industry kill the administration's health agenda. Avoiding that outcome was his goal last year. He and other White House aides assured industry officials that the legislation wouldn't include price controls, and that the administration wouldn't pursue allowing the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and Europe if the health plan passed.

The discussions with PhRMA, the drug industry's main lobby group, and other business groups angered many liberals, who felt Mr. Emanuel ceded too much ground. They also opposed the White House's decision to pursue support from Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Mr. Emanuel gave early indication that he was flexible on the public option, telling The Wall Street Journal last July that the door was open to alternative ideas to "keep the private insurers honest." That prompted a mass email from liberal group MoveOn.org, which said that "Emanuel's remarks will only embolden conservative opponents of reform" and that he was backing "disastrous half-measures."

"Everyone seems to be waiting around for the Chicago street brawler Rahm, because the one that showed up in the White House has little apparent fight in him," says Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos. "Sure, he's quick to attack progressives when they criticize Obama or put legislative pressure on him from the left, but he's far too quick and happy to accommodate the Democratic Party's corporatist wing."

Mr. Emanuel's "retarded" outburst in August heightened the belief among some liberal leaders that the chief of staff was tough only on the left, especially when the health-care debate turned into a conflagration during a series of town-hall meetings.

The weekly strategy sessions where he made the remark, called the Common Purpose Project, are by invitation only, and participants are sworn to secrecy. Activists say it's a one-way conversation, with the White House presenting its views and asking liberals to refrain from public criticism. Ms. Hamsher, publisher of the Fire Dog Lake blog, calls the gatherings the "veal pen."

One liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, founded by ex-MoveOn staff member Adam Green, spent $20,000 to briefly air a television ad featuring a former constituent in Mr. Emanuel's House district. "A lot of us back home hope Rahm Emanuel is fighting for people like us as White House chief of staff," said the man in the ad. "But if he sides with insurance companies and undermines the public option, well, he won't have many fans in Chicago."
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat and one of the House's more liberal members, recalls telling Mr. Emanuel the White House needed to apply more pressure to secure passage of the public option. Mr. Emanuel's response, Mr. Weiner says, was always the same: He was open to any idea that could gain a majority vote.
"Where's The Movement?" (George Lakoff):
In forming his administration, President Obama abandoned the movement that had begun during his campaign for deal-making and a pragmatism that hasn’t worked. That movement is still possible and needed now. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.

Freedom vs. The Public Option

Which would you prefer, consumer choice or freedom? Extended coverage or freedom? Bending the cost curve or freedom?

John Boehner, House Minority Leader, speaking of health care, said recently, "This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I have been here in Washington....It’s going to lead to a government takeover of our health care system, with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats right down the street, making these decisions [choose your doctor, buy your own health insurance] for you."

This is exactly what Frank Luntz advised conservatives to say. They have repeated it and repeated it. Why has it worked to rally conservative populists against their interests? The most effective framing is more than mere language, more than spin or salesmanship. It has worked because conservatives really believe that the issue is freedom. It fits the conservative moral system. It fits how conservatives see the world.

The Democrats have helped the conservatives. Their pathetic attempt to make any deal to get 60 votes convinced even Massachusetts voters that government under the Democrats was corrupt and oppressive, not just inept, but immoral.

All politics is moral

All political leaders argue that they are doing the right thing, not the wrong thing, that their policies are moral, not evil.

Conservatives understand this, liberals tend not to. Conservatives know a morality tale when they see it: Greedy Wall Street bankers, who have cost people their homes, their jobs, and their savings get billion-dollar bailouts from the government, while those honest hard-working people get nothing. Corruption. Oppression. A threat to freedom.

The conservatives are winning the framing wars again — by sticking to moral principles as conservatives see them, and communicating their view of morality effectively. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama ran a campaign based on his moral principles and communicated those principles as effectively as any candidate ever has.

But the Obama administration made a 180-degree turn, trading Obama’s 2008 moral principles for the deal-making of Rahm Emanuel and Tim Geithner, assuming it would be "pragmatic" to court corporations and move to the right, in the false hope of bipartisan support. A clear unified moral vision was replaced by long laundry lists of policy options that the public could not understand, and that made ordinary folks feel they were being bamboozled. And in many cases, they were.

Even the language was a disaster. Liberals thought that conservatives would like consumer choice. That’s why they used "public option." As Harry Reid said, "It’s public and it’s an option — a public option." But what did a conservative hear in the words "public option?" Say "public" and he hears "government." "Option" is a policy-wonk term, from the language of bureaucracy. Say "public option" and the conservative hears "government bureaucracy."

The results of deal-making in the name of pragmatism have been considerably immoral, as documented thoroughly by progressives like Drew Westen, Matt Taibbi, Robert Kuttner, and many others. Advice on what to do instead has not been lacking from other progressives. Advice is all over the blogs. Guy Saperstein is an excellent example.

We progressives are long on factual analysis, critique, suggestion — and ridicule. Rachel Maddow is one of the best, and her popularity is well-deserved. What’s more fun than ridiculing Tea Party-ers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the like, by showing the factual errors, the flaws in their logic, and the cruelty of their positions.

But we have been dealt a triple blow. A year of failed deal-making by our side, the Tea Party win in Massachusetts, and worst of all, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to turn our democracy into a corporate plutocracy. This is serious.

Democrats still have the presidency and a majority in the House and Senate, but the momentum is on the conservative side. Their victories in the framing wars have inevitably led to a crucial electoral victory and to a Supreme Court death threat to democracy itself, framed as free speech.
Democrats have electoral power, but progressives have not created an effective movement to take advantage of that power.

"Where’s the movement?"

In the emerging Obama mythology, this is the question attributed to President Obama whenever he is asked to take the lead on a progressive issue. It is not an idle question. Leaders can only lead if there is a pre-existing movement for them to get in front of.

Moreover, there are other conditions. The idea behind a movement, and the language expressing its goals, must also pre-exist in public discourse. In other words, the movement must already have:

• a popular base;
• organizing tools;
• a generally accepted morally-based conceptual framing;
• an overall narrative, with heroes, victims, and villains;
• a readily recognizable, well-understood language;
• funding sources;
• and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

That is the present reality. Expecting Obama to be FDR was politically unrealistic. And complaining that he isn’t doesn’t move anything forward.

Howard Dean was right when he said, "YOU have the power." What is needed is an organized activist public with a positive understanding of what our values are and how to links them to every issue. Barney Frank was only half-right when he said that the public gets active only when it is angry. That may be true for isolated issues — he was talking about regulating Wall Street. But anger is directed at isolated negatives. An effective movement must be positive, organized, and long-term, where an overall positive understanding defines the isolated negatives. And it must have all of the above.

The California Democracy Movement

We have the beginning of such a movement in California.
The central issue in California is basic democracy. California is the only state in America where the legislature is controlled by a relatively small conservative minority. Because it takes a 2/3 vote in both the Senate and Assembly to pass a budget or any tax, 1/3 plus one – 34% — in either house can control the vote by saying no to measures that would finance public needs.

Conservatives exercise that control for the simple reason that they don’t believe that government should serve public needs, that instead government should be privatized and shrunk to fit in a bathtub, as if governing would disappear with government.

But governing doesn’t disappear when government shrinks; instead corporations come to govern your life — like HMO’s, oil companies, drug companies, agribusiness, and so on, with accountability only to maximizing profit, not to public needs.

An overwhelming majority of Californians — over 60% — disagree. They believe that government should serve public needs, and they have elected sensible legislators. But they don’t quite make up 2/3. And so an extreme right-wing minority – about 37% — controls the state, its present and its future.

Luckily, there is a way out for the majority in California. The initiative process that created this situation can get us out. I have proposed The California Democracy Act as an initiative in the November 2010 election. It changes two words in the California Constitution – "two-thirds" becomes "a majority" in two places. It can be described in one simple sentence: All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. That ballot initiative needs only a majority to pass. It would return majority rule to the legislature on everyday economic issues, bringing democracy back to California. Those interested can join the campaign by clicking on www.CaliforniansForDemocracy.com

Democracy is the central issue, and that is what our movement is about. We are setting up an infrastructure in California, with a statewide organization and a speakers’ bureau, for those who want to continue democratizing the state after the election.

Democracy is The Issue

The majority vote campaign gives us a chance to talk not only about this particular issue, but about democracy as it affects all issues. The clearest articulator of what democracy is about has been Barack Obama — the campaigner we cheered for, campaigned hard for, and voted for.

Democracy, he has observed, is based on empathy — on citizens caring about one another. That’s why we have principles like freedom and fairness, for everybody, not just for the rich and powerful. True empathy requires responsibility, not just for oneself, but also for others. And since we, as individuals and as a nation, are far from perfect, empathy demands an ethic of excellence, of making oneself better, one’s family and community better, and one’s nation better.

That view of citizenship in a democracy comes with a view of government. Government has two sacred moral missions: protection and empowerment.

Protection goes well beyond police and the military and the fire department to consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection, health care, investor protection, social security, and other safety nets.

Empowerment is what the stimulus package was about: building and maintaining roads, bridges, public transportation, and public buildings; systems for communication, electricity, water; education, from pre-school through graduate and professional schools; scientific research and technological development; a banking system that works; a stock market that works; and a judicial system that works.

No one earns a living or lives well without protection and empowerment by the government. That is what taxes pay for. And the more you make from what the government gives you, the more you should contribute to keeping it going.

Tax Shifts

When you cut taxes that pay for public needs, you are actually shifting taxes. You are taxing others. In California tax cuts for corporations last year led to cuts in the support for public universities, which led to 32% higher tuition and a drastic cut in the number of students educated. That 32% constituted a tax on those students and their parents, and when they had to borrow the money for college, interest payments on the loan effectively double the cost of the loan. That’s a very high tax shift. But an even higher tax is shifted onto students who cannot afford the higher tuition: the tax of a lost education lasts all one’s life and its cost is not only monetary, but a cost in human potential. It is also a cost to employers, who get less educated workers, and to society, which gets less educated citizens.

The Movement

We will be talking about all of this and more. Take economic democracy. California is the world’s seventh richest economy. It is ludicrous to say that there is no money in California. If the money for public needs is there, where is it? In California, the richest one percent owns more assets than the bottom 95 per cent. The money is concentrated at the top.

Just about every issue comes down to the issue of democracy. That is why we are starting with the California Democracy Act, which would finally end the rule of the state by a small minority of ultra-conservative legislators. It would finally give the voters of the state a voice in their own future and the future of their children and grandchildren.

If you live in California (one out of eight Americans does), then join the California Democracy Movement. If you live elsewhere, form your own democracy movement and unite with us. The principles are simple, and they are Obama’s:

Democracy is about empathy — caring about your fellow citizens, which leads to the principles of freedom and fairness for all. Empathy requires both personal and social responsibility. The ethic of excellence means making the world better by making yourself better, your family better, your community better, and your nation better. Government has two moral missions: protection and empowerment for all. To carry them out, government must be by, for, and of the people.

It’s only a paragraph. The principles apply to all issues. That’s the basis of a democracy movement. That’s what separates a movement from a coalition. Coalitions are based on interests. Movements are based on principles. We need a movement that transcends interests and goes beyond coalitions.

Movements also transcend particular policies. The framing of moral principles comes first and the policies elaborate on the principles. The way to unite a movement is to form policies that carry out the principles in ways that everyone can understand.

The time is now

We have a triple disaster on our hands: the administration’s failure at deal-making in the name of pragmatism and bipartisanship; the Tea Party victory in Massachusetts fueling and propelling ultra-conservatism; and the anti-democratic 5-4 ruling of the Roberts Court. We can no longer sit on our hands and just criticize the President, or give him advice and hope he can do it alone. We have to provide the answer to his question: Where’s the movement?
Howie P.S.: If Obama can figure out how to be "President Barack-Alinsky," he will realize all the "hope" he inspired.

No comments: